29 September 2007

On First Blush

As the days of this abnormally dry (but otherwise pleasant) September have ticked away, the back of my mind has been politely reminding me that the County had promised to release to the public a downtown Columbia traffic study and draft master plan. That promise became a reality yesterday. The draft master plan, traffic study, a comment/feedback form and a calendar of events can all be viewed here.

The past two presidential administrations have conditioned me to be a bit sour and cynical of press releases that occur on Fridays. It seems at the Federal level, a Friday dump is tantamount to releasing information that does not get covered extensively in the press. Happily, my cynicism dissolved after downloading and reading the five part draft master plan. Moreover, coverage has been pretty quick. Both Hayduke and Columbia Council Representative Evan Coren have already put up blog posts on the subject, and the Baltimore Sun Howard section has a story in today’s paper.

From a broad prospective, the draft master plan looks great. The inclusion of artwork by Bob Tennenbaum, original renderings from early Columbia promotional material, and current day photographs are pleasing to the eye.

With respect to content, I have only had a chance for a quick read through, but a few things stand out:

The document lays out a three step process. The first step of this process is the release of the Draft Master Plan. From page 4 of the Draft Master Plan:

As part of the first step, the Department of Planning and Zoning offers this thematic document, which serves two purposes: (1) to describe a vision for Downtown Columbia, highlighting the themes that have emerged through public dialogue over the course of the past two years and (2) to establish a framework that will provide guidance for General Growth Properties (GGP), the major property owner in Downtown, as they prepare a downtown development master plan for public review and approval.

The second step will be the General Growth Properties plan.

The third step will be codifying the master plan through a legislative process. The legislative process is intended to involve two pieces of legislation: an amendment to the Howard County General Plan (GP) and amendments to the Howard County Zoning Regulations (ZRA). As stated in the Draft Master Plan Appendix:

The County Administration is proposing to utilize these two amendment processes, GP and ZRA, as the recommended approach for Downtown, because they are legislative processes. Legislative processes afford the public the maximum opportunity to interact with their elected officials. The other processes that could be utilized such as amendment to the Preliminary Development Plan or a rezoning case would be a quasi-judicial process, requiring that elected officials cannot speak with the public or anyone else about the case. With this [GP and ZRA amendment] legislative approach, elected officials are free to meet with the public and to discuss the amendments as much as they may find helpful.

The Draft Master Plan does expand on the framework in which General Growth Properties is to hang their master plan on. The framework focuses on five themes, three vision-based and two process-based:

This framework is organized around five themes that emerged from the extensive input by the public during the charrette, the Downtown Columbia Focus Group meetings and from independent groups and individual citizens who have contributed to the planning process. These groups include Howard County Citizens’ Association, Columbia Association, Town Center village board, Wilde Lake village board, Oakland Mills village board, Harper’s Choice village board, the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown (CCD), Bring Back the Vision, Howard County Tomorrow and others.

Just a quick note here. I think it would have been appropriate to list the blogs in Howard County (as a general category) as a source of input. Although rarely unanimous, the blogs have been a source of research, opinion, and discussion related to downtown.

The themes are organized around two broad categories: Vision and Process. The first three serve as extensions of Jim Rouse’s original goals for Columbia – a reaffirmation of the community’s founding principles and shared values. The last two - the Process themes - outline a planning and development process necessary to achieving the vision for Downtown Columbia.

Making a Special Place [page 6]

Downtown Columbia will be a diverse, mixed-use, livable, physically distinctive and human-scaled place with a range of hous-ing choices and recreational, civic and cultural amenities.

Moving and Connecting People [page 6]

Downtown Columbia will enhance multimodal connectivity through a variety of safe, convenient and innovative transportation alternatives.

Sustaining the Environment [page 7]

Downtown Columbia’s natural resources will be protected and enhanced; a network of public spaces will provide places for individual contemplation and social gathering.

Balancing and Phasing Growth [page 7]

The development of Downtown Columbia will be served by public facilities provided in a timely manner.

Involving Everyone [page 8]

The community will be actively engaged in decisions concerning the evolution of Downtown.

The balance of the draft expands on these five themes.

Traffic Study

Once again, only a first impression, but there is a lot to digest here. The traffic study is well written, and goes to some length to explain the terms involved. The traffic study breaks up traffic improvements into near term (present to 2014) and long term traffic flow (2014-2037). In the near term, few traffic modifications are recommended to kep traffic flowing and adding development. Beyond 2014, three scenarios are considered: no development, with a 1% yearly increase in traffic flow (based conservatively on traffic data collected over the last few years), a low development increase, and the projected development that was presented in the initial draft development plan. In all three cases, intersections downtown are predicted to fail.

One point that the slow growth/no growth contingent may latch onto is the middle growth scenario will produce 40% less traffic than the full growth scenario. However, as the report shows, both development scenarios would result in about the same amount of failing intersections. This indicates that there is not a statistically significant correlation between development and traffic. There are many recommendations, but we will save them for another post.

Looking at the calendar, the following draft master plan events are scheduled:

10OCT07 - Downtown Focus Group Meeting 4-6 pm
Oakland Mills, Other Barn
(they’re getting the band back together! And, as typical, during normal working hours to keep us work-a-day people away)

11OCT07 – Traffic Study Report 7-9 pm
Harpers Choice, Kahler Hall

20OCT07 – CA and Village Boards 10-12 noon
Howard Building

20OCT07 – DPZ Open House 1-3 pm
Howard Building

25OCT07 – DPZ Open House 7-9 pm
Wilde Lake High School

30OCT07 – Public Forum 7-9 pm
Oakland Mills High School

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